What Publishing Could Learn from Special Forces

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During the Cold War, the emphasis was on conventional warfare; defeating the Russians from their attempt to roll over West Europe.

I went into the Army during the Reagan era. Even shook his hand at my graduation from West Point, his first public appearance after he’d been shot. I went into the Infantry, the “Queen of Battle.” Everything in the Infantry back then was built from top down. We operated as part of a “combined arms team” with artillery, armor, aviation, etc. We were a cog in a very large machine.

After my first tour in the First Cav Division, I put in my paperwork to go to the Q Course, to become Special Forces qualified. My battalion commander signed it, but told me my career as an officer was over. Special Forces was considered an additional assignment, not a career assignment. What that meant was after a tour in Special Forces, I would return to the Infantry but would then be one tour of duty behind my contemporaries. I wasn’t very concerned about that. I figured if I was going to be in the Army, I wanted to be in the best part of the Army, so off I want.

Then the Cold War ended, but the Army didn’t really change much to adapt. There were some minor adjustments, but nothing substantial. Special Forces became a separate branch in 1987 for officers, so I removed my crossed rifles of Infantry and pinned on the crossed arrows of Special Forces while I was at the Infantry Officer Advanced Course, which was not popular.

The First Gulf War was largely conventional and General Schwarzkopf was not fond of Special Operations (like most high ranking officers of the time), so they were under-utilized. Then 9–11 happened and the units best capable of dealing with this new type of warfare were Special Operations. Terrorism had always been around. But it took something so dramatic to cause change; and even then, the Army was slow to adapt. Any large organization takes time to change; it’s the nature of things.

In the modern world, the focus is on small, elite units, capable of a multitude of missions. Able to respond quickly.

Traditional publishing has been around a long time; with little change. Print book sales are still consignment. The publishing process from query to bookstore is still agonizingly long; I’m seeing deals being announced now on completed manuscripts with pub dates of 2017. Royalties are still paid as if computers were never invented and capable of real time reporting. It’s the nature of large organizations to keep doing things the same way until change is forced.

Amazon launched in 1994. Selling books via snail mail. The Kindle was launched on 19 November 2007. Less than ten years ago. The first one sold out in five and a half hours, retailing at $399. Publishing took little interest. I remember a panel of agents and editors at a conference in 2010 laughing about eBooks, saying why should we be concerned with something that has been less than 3% of the market? That is large organization mindset where the past dictates the future.

Then eBook sales exploded.

Publishers made some adjustments; the Agency Pricing war was fought. Publishers ‘won’. But now the party line is that this eBook thing has crested and print is coming back. Because people always want things to be as they were, what they were comfortable with.

But things have changed and will continue to evolve. I’m hearing a lot of grumbling from authors who are still working in an archaic business model where the focus is on the publisher, not the author or reader. Contracts contain pretty much the same boilerplate, with the addition of restrictions such as non-compete clauses. Publishers made record profits, mostly because of digital sales, where their overhead is low, along with low royalties paid to authors on those sales. In essence, publishers are still mainly geared to fight a conventional war in a digital age. There are certainly innovations happening and change is occurring, but for many to believe that things are static is irrational. To believe that things won’t continue to change at an ever-increasing pace is also irrational. But it’s the party line.

Not at this party. I was part of the evolvement of Special Forces from the red-headed bastard of the Army into the tip of the spear. Helped developed the Special Forces Selection & Assessment and the new Qualification Course. I went from being one of the last First Lieutenant A-Team executive officers to being among the first officers to put on the crossed arrows.

In 2010, I traded in my conventional publishing mantle for that of an indie author. I did so because I’d already been through a slow change in a large organization. I didn’t want to be part of another one, because often those who don’t adapt quickly get caught in the gears of change and crushed. I saw an opportunity to change quickly. I met my future business partner at a conference in 2009 and after a lengthy discussion about traditional publishing and digital publishing (something that she had already been involved in for five years) we formed Cool Gus. It was a steep learning curve to inculcate all aspects of being our own publisher in a different type of model from what I’d experienced in 20 years of traditional publishing. But in the back of my mind, the key was the future, not the present and certainly not the past. As the Internet drew authors ever closer to readers, we foresaw a day when more and more authors would want the ability to be in charge of their own creativity and career. To become a form of Special Forces.

At the core of Special Forces is the A-Team. 12 soldiers. Unlike the conventional Army, A-Teams most often conduct operations on their own, not part of a larger maneuver element. They are fast, agile, able to conduct a wide array of missions. The individuals are among the most highly trained soldiers. I envisioned Cool Gus to become an A-Team in publishing, working with authors who not only could write great books, but were also business savvy. The biggest thing I foresaw was a need for an entity that would not only make the author the most important part of the process, but also give the author complete creative control, not just of content, but over all decisions. But also have a single point of contact that gave expert advice and took care of the heavy lifting of all aspects of publishing, so the author could focus on writing.

We’ve had several bestselling authors go hybrid with us; one of our guiding principles is that the author’s overall career goes first, not just their career with us. What’s good for the author overall is good everyone, thus we wholly support their traditional career and adjust to adapt to it.

Jen and I sat down for a week not long ago, hammering out a revised business plan (we’re always revisiting things as the situation changes, much like Special Forces and since we’re small, we can change fast). And we pondered terms, because labels are important. We never really considered Cool Gus a publisher. But we needed something to call it that fit our vision. So we came up with Author-Centric-Team, not quite A-Team, but close: A.C.T..

We believe 2016 will be the year more bestselling traditionally published authors become hybrid. It’s a complicated issue in many ways. As always, something I preach in Who Dares Wins, also drawn from my SF background, fear has a large role to play. We are afraid of different, especially when the familiar seems to be working okay. For a traditionally published author to explore something outside their safe cocoon of agent/publisher and try something different is daunting.

We are evolving into the age of the author, not the publisher, and the need for an Author-Centric-Team is going to grow larger.

Originally published at writeitforward.wordpress.com on December 3, 2015.

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to www.bobmayer.com

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